The inequalities in real estate assessments fade into insignificance when the results of the attempts to reach personal property values are brought in review. If assessors have been unable to give a semblance of equality in the assessment of real estate, how much less could satisfactory assessments of the multitudinous forms of personal property be expected. When one considers the task which devolves upon the assessor when he is instructed to get the value of all property, there is little wonder that results are so uncomplimentary.
The early assessor, in valuing personal property, had but to consider live stock, agricultural implements, and other objects which were easily discernible, and the value of which was well known. To the modern assessor, however, the assessment of tangible objects of personalty presents a problem which is more complex. Public utilities, factories, wholesale establishments, retail stores of various kinds, and the many other institutions whose business is of a complex nature, may be in his district. In a number of states the assessor is required to secure the full and true value of all the property as it is on the first day of April, or "assessment day," as it is sometimes called. Consider the magnitude and impossibility of the task. He must locate and appraise the value of the rolling stock and equipment of the public utilities; he must evaluate the machinery in the factory, the raw materials and finished products on hand; he must assess the stock of goods contained in the wholesale establishments, as well as those in department and simple retail stores. To concede even the possibility of anything like satisfactory results presupposes a degree of intelligence and ability not likely to be found in the ordinary assessor. Indeed, few would claim to possess sufficient qualifications to fit them for such a task.
Intangible Property. - To the burden of assessing the various forms of tangible property is added the task of securing the value of intangibles, and here the property tax system becomes confusion worse confounded. A reflection on the nature of much of the intangible property immediately leads one to sense the difficulty. One writer partially describes it as follows:
Thus a large part - in fact, the larger part - of what is to-day termed personal property, in every civilized state, is of the most intangible character, and in a great part invisible and incorporeal; such, for example, as negotiable instruments in the form of bills of exchange, state, municipal, and corporate bonds, and the multiplied forms of evidence of indebtedness, certificates of stocks, copyrights, patents, legal-tender notes, etc., all of which, if entitled to the name of property, is, through a great variety of circumstances, constantly exposed to fluctuations in value, frightful in amount, and incalculable in their suddenness, and under the influence of which wealth vanishes as if by the wave of a magician's wand. It is offset or measured by indebtedness which may never be the same one hour with another, is easy to transfer, and as essential to using, is, in fact, continually transferred from one locality to another, and from the jurisdiction of one state to the jurisdiction and laws of another and different state; is here to-day, gone to-morrow; is burned, sunk at sea, lost in mines, patents, railways, factories, trading associations, and in a thousand other different ways. It has been recently said that five men who do business in Boston can together control or dispose of an amount of property which equals one-fifteenth of the entire assessed valuation of that city; and that they could, if they pleased, carry round the evidence of the existence of that property in their coat pockets, or, according to popular theory, the property itself.1
This description vividly portrays the nature of what the assessor is expected to value, and it is little wonder that he takes the path of least resistance, places on the assessment roll the property which is easily found, and allows
1 D. A. Wells, The Theory and Practice of Taxation, p. 401.
the rest to escape. When we consider, moreover, that the laws designate all such evidences of wealth as stocks and bonds to be assessable property, it becomes evident that, in most districts, the assessed value of personalty should far exceed that of real estate. Yet it is a notorious fact that nowhere does the value placed upon personal property even approximate that placed upon real estate. In some states where there has been a large increase in the real estate valuations, the assessed valuation of personal property has actually decreased. It is a very common situation for personal property to bear less than 20 per cent of the tax burden, and it frequently falls as low as 3 to 5 per cent.
Statistics of Valuation. - A few figures from the census reports, chosen almost at random, will serve to visualize the relative positions of these two classes of property, as far as the assessors' books are concerned. The following figures show the assessed value of real estate at different times, as compared with the total assessment of property for five states in various parts of the Union. The first set of figures represents the total assessment, while those just beneath are real estate values. The relation between the two can be calculated easily from this.
Assessed Valuation of All Property Compared with the Assessed
Valuation of Real Estate
$ 957,867 687,518
A glance at these figures will reveal the large proportion of the tax burden which is borne by real estate. It becomes still more evident when figures for some of the larger cities are compared. Figures are shown in the following table for four cities for different dates. The first number in the column shows the assessed value of real estate; the one just beneath it that of personal property.
Assessed Valuation of Real Estate and Personal Property
1 The explanation of this remarkable increase in the assessment of personal property given by the Bureau of the Census is as follows:. " Prior to 1918 the only personal property subject to taxation in the District of Columbia was tangible personal property, but in 1918 the law was changed requiring that intangible personal property be assessed for taxation." The large assessment of personal property for 1918 is an interesting exception to the general rule.
No comment is needed to show that a wholesale evasion of personal property assessment exists. Figures for other cities are just as startling. The conclusions follow that personal property cannot be reached by the assessors, or at least is not reached, and that this class of property bears tax burdens inversely proportionate to the amount.